So you wanna go to film school….Part 1: Searching for a Program

It’s that time of year again, when current and former students start asking me about film schools — where they should apply, if I will write a letter of recommendation, and so on. Whether or not film school is right for an individual is a personal decision and I’m not going to reiterate the pros and cons of film school here. Instead, this two-part post aims to help those who have decided to apply.

This post will address some basic tips on looking for a graduate program in film production. The next post will provide some tips on the application process.

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Where should I go to film school?

Well, that depends. What kinds of films do you want to make? Do you ultimately hope to work in or outside the industry? Where would you enjoy living? Until you can answer some basic questions about your personal goals, deciding on a film school is next to impossible.

Needless to say, it helps to have some idea about your goals before you apply. After that, begin researching the different programs that exist. The IMDB maintains a pretty good list of film schools. I think it’s smart to make your first initial research into film programs no less than six months in advance of applying.

Here are things to consider as you look at programs:

Location. Do you want to pursue your filmmaking in a place where you’ll be free of distractions, or do you need the stimulation of a city? Does the town or city have a cultural community that will allow your work to thrive? Will you be placing yourself thousands of miles from the place where you want to film your work? If you ultimately want to work in Hollywood you might want to aim for a California school so you can go ahead and begin building that network. If you want to work “regionally” (code for “outside LA or NY”), you should consider studying close to the place where you want to ultimately live, work, and film. (One important exception: If you want to teach filmmaking, don’t go to a school where you might want to ultimately teach. Many schools have explicit policies against hiring “their own” as tenure-track faculty.) One way or another, a school’s location is an incredibly important factor to consider.

Reputation of the program. No one is going to finance your next movie simply because you attended some elite film school. There is something to be said for the networking that a school like USC or NYU provides, but there are several worthwhile, lesser-known programs outside of the so-called “Big Five”, particularly if you’re not interested in a career in Hollywood. Among them (in alpha order): American University, Art Institute of Chicago, Boston University, CalArts, Columbia College, Emerson, Florida State, Iowa, Stanford, Southern Illinois, Texas, and Temple. Some of these cater to experimental work, others to documentary or alternative/independent narrative. Many are good bargains. I’ll leave it to you to do the research.

Faculty and students. A lot of prospective applicants put an emphasis on who will be teaching them. Faculty, no doubt, are important: Perhaps less important than their individual accomplishments is their ability and willingness to take the time to mentor their students. Having said this, your fellow students matter even more than faculty. You’ll spend far more time with your fellow students, you’ll collaborate together, and you’ll critique each other’s work. If you don’t respect them and the work they’re trying to do, I expect you will be very, very unhappy.

Course Offerings and Curricula. As you look at the required courses for each program, ask yourself: Do these look like interesting courses? Are these the subjects that I want to learn about? I’ve known students to transfer or drop out of film programs because they were dissatisfied with having to learn about experimental film, or (at another school) because they weren’t learning enough about experimental film. What’s mind boggling to me is that this is pretty straightforward stuff. You look at the required classes, and you look at the other courses that are offered from semester to semester. If it looks like a good fit with your interests, you’ve found a contender. If it’s missing courses in areas that are vital to your development, forget it. For the programs in between, contact the faculty and students and ask lots of questions.

Equipment and Facilities. A decade ago, the equipment that a school could offer mattered a lot, but it’s not a lot to get worked up about today. After all, you can buy an HVX-200, a laptop and Final Cut Studio for a fraction of a year’s tuition at most film schools. You don’t want to go someplace that has crummy equipment, nor do you want to attend a school that lacks enough equipment to serve its students. You need good (film and video) cameras, sound equipment, lights, and editing stations. (Maybe not even the editing stations, if you already own one.) Beyond that, don’t get worked up about facilities and equipment. If you’re simply going to film school to touch the latest equipment, maybe you should go intern at an equipment house instead. Indeed, having access to every single new toy can be a distraction. You need to learn to make do with the basics. At least that’s what I think. If you need a huge state-of-the-art soundstage to make your movies, go for it.

Film Funding. Some programs expect students to fund their own work; other programs fund their students’ work. Each system has its pros and cons. For instance, with school-funded films who gets to decide which films get funded? Are some films funded and others not? Who retains the copyright on school-funded films? On the other hand, when funding your own work, how will that impact your ability to graduate in a timely fashion?

Length of Program. Most programs are three years; some are two years. There may be a difference between what a school’s literature states and the reality though. Ask current students for the skinny on how long it takes for students to typically finish a program. It can be a positive thing, of course, to stay in school as long as you can. After all, student loan payments aren’t due until after you’re no longer enrolled. The point is, you need to know what kind of time commitment you’re making.

Cost. Tuition is one thing to consider; cost of living in the town/city of the school are equally important. Don’t let cost enter your first considerations of film programs. After all, you might be offered a fellowship or assistantship if you’re accepted. But unless you’re independently wealthy you will probably want to keep cost in the back of your mind. I believe you should not go into a lot of debt for film school, or any MFA for that matter. This is an art degree, not a law degree or med school, that we’re talking about.

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After you’ve narrowed down your list to say, 10 or so, get in touch with the schools and try to find out more. Email or phone the various departments and speak with the Department Head or professors. During your conversations with these folks, ask if they can put you in touch with some current students. Also — this is important — ask them if there is a way that the program can share with you some recent student work.

From here, visit as many of your final contenders as is possible. Sit in on classes, meet with faculty and students. Screen student work, if you can. Ask lots of questions — not just about the school, but the larger filmmaking community in the city/town. The positive impression that you make will help you as you apply.

Speaking of applying, my next post will outline some specific things you can do to make your application stronger.

One Response to “So you wanna go to film school….Part 1: Searching for a Program”

  1. Jon Says:

    Timely post. Thank you for the insight, Paul. I’m looking forward to further info.